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Calypso and Calypsonians in North America, 1934-1961

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Archive for the ‘Van Dyke Parks’ Category

The Immigrants

Posted by Michael Eldridge on July 5, 2018

I’ve always been in the “Patriotism Is the Last Refuge of Scoundrels” camp.  And nothing makes me fume more than the mandatory display of Loyalty-to-Murca that precedes the first pitch of every U.S. baseball game.  Still, I hate to surrender the Fourth of July to the flag-waving, know-nothing, nativist MAGA mob. (In the New York Times, Professor Holly Jackson reminds us that Independence Day was once an occasion for protesting against social injustice.)

Thankfully, there’s national treasure and long-time calypsophile Van Dyke Parks, who has teamed up with the Guatemalan-American singer Gaby Moreno to resurrect David Rudder’s twenty-year-old anthem, “The Immigrants.”  With the gang of “zero-tolerance” zealots running things in Washington these days, the lyrics penned by Rudder, himself a migrant to Canada, are tragically timely.  Moreno, who immigrated to the U.S. eighteen years ago, gives them a heartfelt, hard-nosed reading, while Parks’s arrangement imbues the tune with a touch of (Randy) Newman-esque Americana.

You can purchase “The Immigrants” from Nonesuch Records (and all the usual online music vendors); sales will benefit the Central American Resource Center of California (CARECEN).

Calypso actually has a history with this sort of thing. In the 1940s, when Popular Front leftists fought a previous generation of nativists over the meaning of “Americanism,” “I Am An American Day,” celebrated each May in towns and cities large and small, effectively became a nationwide celebration of newly naturalized citizens from all parts of the world.  Along with other initiatives—National Brotherhood Week, radio shows such as Americans…All, popular songs like “The House I Live In” and “Ballad for Americans”—I Am An American Day promoted ethnic harmony and celebrated the contributions of immigrant groups to U.S. history and culture, as one way of contrasting American liberal ideals against the chauvinism of Europe’s fascist regimes.  Sir Lancelot headed the British West Indies committee at the 1943 ceremony in Los Angeles, while the Duke of Iron appeared on an episode of the syndicated radio program This Is Our Cause marking the 1944 observation.[1] In New York, 1944 also saw the first I Am An American Day Folk Festival at the Golden Gate Ballroom, sponsored by Harlem’s George Washington Carver Community School, a new adult education center founded by radical writer, artist, activist and educator Gwendolyn Bennett. The Duke performed, along with a score of other entertainers and politicians, at the festival’s second and third iterations in 1945 and 46. (By 1947, sadly, the school had been hounded out of existence by the House Un-American Activities Committee.)

I-A-A-A Composite

Undated (1945) newspaper clipping and program, Cecil “Duke of Iron” Anderson Archives, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Cultures, New York Public Library

My friend and collaborator Ray Funk wrote a piece on “The Immigrants” for the Trinidad Guardian. You can also read what Felix Contreras has to say at NPR’s Alt.Latino, and revisit a 2009 profile of Van Dyke Parks for Crawdaddy by Denise Sullivan.


[1] “U.S. Treasury Fetes Singer,” Pittsburgh Courier 3 July 1943: 21; review of “This Is Our Cause,” Billboard 31 July 1943: 12-13.  WINS, which aired “This Is Our Cause” in New York, was the flagship station of the broadcast division of reactionary media magnate William Randolph Hearst’s Independent News Service.  The program was billed as a weekly wartime “patriotic revue,” and it’s possible that Hearst fingered the Duke because of his 1939 patriotic paean “U.S.A.,” recorded with Gerald Clark for Varsity records. Needless to say, Hearst’s “cause”—nativist assimilationism rather than progressive internationalism—was not necessarily the Duke’s.  The lyrics of Duke’s calypso, written by fellow Trini expatriate (and Harlem M.D.) Walter Merrick, extolled the United States not only as a place of freedom , democracy, and material bounty, but as a haven for refugees and the home of Roosevelt’s WPA.

Posted in Calypso, David Rudder, Gaby Moreno, Van Dyke Parks | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Kobo Town’s Western Swing

Posted by Michael Eldridge on July 30, 2013

Kobo Town, the Toronto band fronted by Drew Gonsalves, a Trini transplant with a penchant for classic calypso, has been on my radar for a few years now.  I first heard them on the CBC when I was living in Ontario, downloaded their debut album (legally!), checked their roots-reggae sound, and filed them away for future reference.

The drawer opened again a couple of months ago, when Afropop Worldwide producer Banning Eyre gave Kobo Town’s sophomore release, Jumbie in the Jukeboxa high-profile review on NPR’s All Things Considered.  It’s a great disc, heavier on kaiso but seasoned with ska, dancehall and other pan-Caribbean flavors.  Production values are high, thanks to Stonetree/Cumbancha founder Ivan Duran, who’s given worldbeat-minded crate-diggers lots to love over the last decade or so, having fostered the careers of Ska Cubano, Sergeant Garcia, the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, and the late Andy Palacio & the Garifuna Collective.  The tunes can feel a bit “same-y” after a while, in part because so many of them are laid over a loping, midtempo kadans beat.  And there are one or two misses, sure.  But the hits—which include several re-minor tunes that recall the great “oratorical” calypsos of the early twentieth century—hit heavy.  Gonsalves has a relaxed, conversational delivery and a talent for the pithy turn of phrase.  (A slumming North American tourist comes to the Caribbean in search of “postcard poverty”; a Saddam-obsessed U.S. “Gone down in a hole to catch a mouse/While a rat livin’ large in the White House.”)

Imagine my delight when, vacationing in Portland, Oregon, I discovered that Kobo Town would be playing a small club on North Mississippi Avenue, a historically African-American street now choking on Portlandia clichés (artists, hipsters, twee boutiques, trendy restaurants; it’s crying out for a withering calypso).  Roughly fifty souls, including a few duffers in the balcony and some very enthusiastic Trinis on the dancefloor, turned out for a strong set.  Gonsalves has a lovely stage presence: humble, good-humored, genuine.  The rhythm section (Grenadian bassist Pat Giunta, Ottawan drummer Robert Milicevic) is solid as a panyard engine-room.  Wiry, barefoot multi-reedist Linsey Wellman is full of goofy spirit and improvisatory energy, while fellow Trini Cesco Emmanuel unassumingly trades lead and rhythm guitar duties with Gonsalves, who doubles on cuatro.  (Cuatro!  No horns in the road version of the band, though.)  There were originals, mostly from Jumbie in the Jukebox.  There were inventive covers of Tiger, Invader, Kitch, and Small Island Pride.  There was antiphonal audience-participation (we played the part of a bloodthirsty mob).  And there was an a cappella encore, down on the dancefloor: a medley of “Congo Bara” and other semi-tone chants that somehow morphed into a sing-along version of Sparrow’s “Jean and Dinah.”  Magic.

Although they’ve been playing bigger gigs back east and overseas—including a spot at this year’s Montreal Jazz Festival—this was Kobo Town’s first time on the west coast.  Touring is tough, I know, especially when you’re playing to small crowds in small rooms.  But I hope they come back (and play more cities next time!).

You can read a short interview with Gonsalves on the CBC Music blog and stream several tracks from Jumbie  courtesy of SonicBids.  There’s plenty Kobo out there on YouTube, but here’s the Jumbie EPK:

________________________

Kobo town aren’t the only ones out there doing new takes on old tunes.  Gonsalves’s age-mate and fellow expat, trumpeter and Michigan State University professor Etienne Charles, is winning big props for his new album, Creole Soul (samples on SoundCloud; profile on AAJ), while Van Dyke Parks incorporates his previously released cover of “Money Is King” into Songs Cycledhis first album of new material—never mind the backward-glancing title—in almost two decades.  Two degrees of separation: in their live show, Kobo Town also regularly covers Growling Tiger’s classic statement of outrage over what we euphemise these days as “income inequality,” while Charles’s grandfather played cuatro in Tiger’s band.  (Previous posts: Etienne Charles, Van Dyke Parks.)

Posted in Canada, Growling Tiger, Kobo Town, Van Dyke Parks | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again, Part 2

Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 23, 2012

Discover AmericaVan Dyke ParksActually, this is something like “Ol’ Time Calypso Come Back Again” squared.  Visionary American songwriter/musician/arranger/producer Van Dyke Parks first championed vintage calypso back in 1969, when a blow-out from an offshore Union Oil rig spread as much as 100,000 gallons of crude over the coast of southern California.  Around the same time, Parks happened to catch the Esso Trinidad Tripoli Steelband serving as exotic props in Liberace’s Las Vegas nightclub act.  “I thought it was a vulgarity,” he said; “I wanted to save them from their trivialization.”  Youthful but good-hearted paternalism.  Yet something else clicked: an understanding of the links between globalization, neo-colonialism, environmental racism—and an Afro-diasporic cultural affinity for what the great Barbadian poet Kamau Brathwaite describes as “twisting music out of hunger.”  (“America pollutes its environment with oil: Little Trinidad makes beautiful music from the drums that you throwaway,” as Esso steelbandsman Godfrey Clarke put it.)  In short, Parks “went calypso,” and within the space of a few years he produced records for Warner Brothers by the Esso Trinidad Steel Band (1971) and the Mighty Sparrow (1974), touring the country with the former; he also recorded his own album of classic calypso covers, Discover America (1972) and arranged a cover of Calypso Rose’s “Wha She Go Do” for Bonnie Raitt’s Takin’ My Time (1973).   (Later, with help from Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner, Parks orchestrated a minor comeback for the retired expatriate calypsonian Sir Lancelot.)  You can read a fuller account of Parks’s discovery of calypso here—and listen to him talk about his first encounter (and his American tour) with the Esso Trinidad Steel Band at NPR’s Lost and Found Sound.

VDP, Lancelot, Cooder

Van Dyke Parks with Sir Lancelot and Ry Cooder, McCabe’s Guitar Shop, Los Angeles, December 1984. Photo copyright Sherry Rayn Barnett.

In 2009, Parks reissued the Esso and Sparrow discs on CD on his own “Bananastan” label (Warner had originally made the albums as an indulgence to their wunderkind, but never really promoted them and long ago let them fall out of print), and he also dusted off Atilla the Hun’s “FDR in Trinidad” in a 1996 concert that finally made it to CD in 2011. Discover America (where his rendition of that tune first appeared) and its follow-up, Clang of the Yankee Reaper, are slated for re-release this summer.  In the meantime, Parks has revisited calypso’s Golden Age with a timely arrangement of Tiger’s classic “Money Is King” as the b-side of his own “Wall Street.”  The pair of songs constitutes the first release in a series of 7-inch vinyl 45 rpm singles—remember those?—available for order exclusively from Parks’s website.  (They can also be had commercially as digital downloads.)  Of Tiger’s classic tune, which offers “transcultural truths about the lives of the rich and the poor,” Parks comments (at the blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books):

Wall Street/Money Is King

Cover art by Art Spiegelman

Today, the pressing questions are economic ones. Inequalities between the rich and poor could not be more entrenched anywhere than they are in the United States. That fact is largely overlooked by foreign observers, blessed by national healthcare safety nets and other civil services. MacWorld now views the U.S.A. primarily through its music and movies, which paint a picture of vapid sitcom jollity. T’aint so…”Money is King” …underscores this sudden spate of public outrage at the bank and corporate bail-outs, with a simultaneous reduction of services for the poor. This toxic mix has created a spontaneous combustion reminiscent of Tsarist times.

The Growling Tiger discovered America a long time ago:  he first came to New York with Atilla and Beginner at the height of the Depression in 1935, the very year he composed “Money Is King.”  In 2012, thanks to VDP, he occupies Wall Street.

Posted in Growling Tiger, Van Dyke Parks | Tagged: , , , , | 7 Comments »

 
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